From his own experience of addressing an enormous crowd at an entertainment venue, a filmmaker examines the power entertainers hold over their audiences and the correlation they may have with Nazi stage techniques.
When I first watched the trailer for "A Venue for the End of the World" I made the mistake of getting too excited and set a certain amount of expectations for it. It was a mistake particularly because I started thinking that it would be along the lines of an Adam Curtis documentary. Especially since the idea behind "A Venue for the End of the World" had a similar concept to one of Adam's short documentaries, where he drew connections between modern politics and the avant-garde movement.
Obviously when I start out a review by talking about the mistake of expectations it doesn't bode well for the movie that I am discussing. Which I’ll admit, after I had originally watched "A Venue for the End of the World" I did not like it and thought it had failed at what it had set out to do. Thankfully, I went back a second time because I wanted to make sure I was clear on certain points that I wanted to discuss. And going back into the movie with a new head space, I was able to see the film more for what it was rather than what it wasn't. There are some still some significant problems with "A Venue for the End of the World" but there are some decent ideas floating around and some value in the interviews themselves as well.
"A Venue for the End of the World" wants to hook the viewer with the idea that there is a correlation between concerts and how Hitler's rallies were staged. A clever way to grab someone's attention (hey, it worked on me) but ultimately it's a fleeting anecdote from Chip Monck. The director, Aidan Prewett, does attempt to connect the dots and justify this idea but never quite gets there. In general, the connections are rather loose and thin — one of their points is that Hitler used vertical banners and now most performers opt for them as well. Not exactly a hard line between the two, in my opinion. Again though, this is more of a hook than anything else. The real crux of "A Venue for the End of the World" is the concept of groupthink; the idea that people in large groups will come to a consensus decision regardless of moral or critical evaluation.
You can understand the idea of using Hitler as a gimmick a little bit more when you realize that the examination of groupthink is the actual thesis of the movie. Again, there's very little to support this idea (concerning Hitler, that is). But this is also where the documentary failed to accomplish its goal of justifying the concept of comparing concerts with a Hitler’s rallies because there's no real examination of groupthink within the movie.
As an example, Aidan mentions that he attended a concert and subconsciously began fist-pumping along with everyone else in the crowd because of groupthink. The problem with that is that it's simply stated as being a matter of fact — he participated in a series of body movements therefor it can only be the result of collective persuasion. Is it though? For me, there is an obvious question to ask with such a statement. Do people fist-pump at concerts because it's been decided by people, as a whole, that that's what you do, or is it because of the amount of people within a confined space limits you on what you can do at a concert?
This is where I originally had a problem with "A Venue for the End of the World": it presents a thesis that relates entertainment with a psychological phenomena but does nothing to create arguments that are for or against the idea. Instead what "A Venue for the End of the World" does is interview a number of people who talk about their experiences being in control of large crowds. Which is interesting in itself but then it quickly becomes a collection of stories rather than an exploration of this issue. If that’s all “A Venue for the End of the World” wanted to be then that would have been fine as well. However, the movie insists on trying to be more in-depth than that while continuously going back to the idea that there is a correlation between concerts and Hitler. Except that the personal accounts from managers and musicians do not act as support to the film’s concept. At the very least, nothing that can be considered more than anecdotal evidence. So Aidan settles for pulling a single quote from each interview, turns them into a title card, which is then supposed to act as an argument for the movie’s concept. Within the context of the movie’s narrative, that setup is okay — it ties more into Aidan’s personal story — but it doesn’t work as a reinforcement of the movie’s concept. For the sake of argument, sure, what’s being said may come across as being true (even without hard facts) there is still a complete lack of substance that exists outside of someone's personal story.
Even though it is a rather unusual statement, I would have been okay with the movie even though it is unable to support its own ideas because, again, the interviews are interesting. The interviewees do have some great insight as to what its like being in control of crowds. But there are two other issues that rear up in the course of the runtime: the editing, or rather, the structure, and Aidan’s attempt at interjecting a personal story as a through line.
The way in which “A Venue for the End of the World” was edited, and structured, becomes a problem from the very beginning of the movie. Coincidentally, Aidan’s attempt to bring the audience in by using a story about himself giving a speech at a venue is also part of the problem in this opening.
The movie opens up with stock footage of World War 2 and Hitler (obviously) while an audio recording of a man speaking about how the birth of Mick Jagger is going to bring about the end of the world is overlaid onto that footage. Of course anytime Mick Jagger is referenced directly, they cut to a shot of Hitler. After that segment, it cuts to a young man walking into a stadium to give a speech while a narration kicks on about dying (metaphorically) on stage — which then cuts to the crowd booing said man. After that segment, it cuts to a popular venue, listing popular acts that have played there, then cuts to the first interview.
I’m sure that doesn’t sound so bad but there is a massive problem. If I were to remove all pre-existing knowledge I had of the documentary, and look at it as if I went into it blind, I would have no fucking clue as to what “A Venue for the End of the World” is about by that opening. Not only would I not know what the movie is about but there’s nothing there to tell me who this person (Aidan) is that I’m following and having to listen to. In this scenario, I’m not even sure if I would know what the movie is about by the middle point because it never really makes itself clear as to what it’s trying to do. A thesis-based documentary like this doesn’t need to tell me, directly, what it’s about (and I’m not asking it to) but it needs to give me some sort of idea.
I wish I could attribute this to being some misguided creative choice but it's simply a bad choice in editing — a problem that continues throughout the movie. There is no real pace or structure here. It’s a collection of interviews with random bits of old eduction films inserted with narration from Aidan, recalling personal accounts of being in or in-front of crowds, and an occasional side point about gatherings of people (i.e., Occupy Wall Street). There’s not a clear, concise line of thinking in how the documentary plays out and delivers information. And the problem with that isn’t with watching the movie itself but that it convolutes the point and the direction of the movie.
The same thing can be applied to Aidan’s personal story that he felt the need to include and intersects with the examination of people and the concept of groupthink. Even though we are not told who he is, or what it is that he is doing, I already understand how his “story” is going to play out — the guy who’s not comfortable speaking in front of large group now has to give a speech and is going to use what he’s learned through this documentary in order to take control of the crowd (like musicians, like Hitler). The reason it’s an issue is because it doesn’t work from how poorly it was cut together. I only knew what this setup was because it is a documentary trope — someone making a documentary about a subject because of how it relates to them are a dime a dozen. And I’m not faulting Aidan for making one himself, but it is another part of “A Venue for the End of the World” that would have worked better had it been edited differently. Or removed entirely. Initially I spent the movie being frustrated by the interjections of his personal anecdotes because I didn’t know who he was, and as a result of not knowing, didn’t care.
I will however give Aidan some credit as his movie has a rather broad theme and it’s not exactly an easy subject to make a movie out of since part of it is on a psychological level. So this could have been rather clinical in nature and been nothing more than a cold, dull movie. Then again, it also shows the short sightedness of the film since a chunk of the movie becomes about Woodstock, which is fine. But, if you’re talking about the psychological shifts in people in large groups and you’re going to talk about Woodstock. A reasonable comparison would be to compare the original Woodstock — a festival about love — with Woodstock from 1999 — a festival that downgraded into riots and violence. And if you’re trying to make a documentary where you call Hitler “the first rock star”, then a good comparison would be a music event that was originally about love and peace being turned into one of violence because the performers commanded the audience to do so. It also leaves plenty of room to discuss the positives and negatives of groupthink but to also examine how the mentality of people can change, or not change, from different generations. But I digress.
Now, having said all that, it might be hard to imagine but I don’t dislike “A Venue for the End of the World”. There are a lot of problems with it and I was disappointed that it didn’t follow through with its hook of looking at the parallels between the rallies of a dictator and modern music concerts. I’m willing to acknowledge that part of my disappointment comes from the expectations I put on the movie. Yes, it doesn’t actually support its own concept and doesn’t actually explore what groupthink is but there’s still value in the interviewees themselves who do talk about that theme. It’s what indirectly saves the movie; people like Paul Provenza, Ian Anderson, and Chip Monck share a fascinating perspective as to what it’s like to be in front of a crowd and to take control of a room. It’s the interviews and the people who were interviewed that make “A Venue for the End of the World” and they’re the reason I was able to go back into the movie and enjoy it on some level.